Guide To Public Speaking
Congratulations! You’re about to embark on the exciting voyage of getting up on stage then making noises come out of your face. Welcome to public speaking.
My name is David Hayward, and I was pretty intensively trained in public speaking during my teens. Over my years running events, I’ve been able to help many people become less nervous about giving talks at them, and others sometimes ask me for tips. I’ve put a load below, roughly in order of beginners stuff to more advanced things. Don’t worry too much about the more advanced stuff if you’re just starting out; it’s not a requirement for giving a talk people enjoy, and can take years to really practice.
None of the things below are tricks to practice as such, and they’re definitely not a set of MAGIC BUTTONS TO PUSH THAT MAKE PEOPLE LIKE YOU. They’re all basically ways of getting into more relaxed states. Through that relaxed state, you become more conversational in addressing an audience, which in turn is much more engaging and approachable for them.
If You Are Nervous You Are Not Weak:
Most humans don’t normally speak to lots of people all at once, and that seems to have always been the case. Usually, having the attention of dozens or hundreds of people will trigger some sort of fight or flight response, because in everyday human terms, that much attention normally means something terrible has happened or is about to.
So the first thing to remember is: the audience is basically on your side (a good event will filter out any edge casses where they’re not – through some combination building a good venue for dialogue, excluding abusive people, and having your back while you’re up on stage). The audience have turned up and they’re sitting there because they’re interested in what you have to say. Later, no one will remember a moment where you get a bit flustered or have to look through your notes.
The second thing to remember is that everything feels different on stage. Time dilates; a pause of just a few seconds may feel like an eternity to you, but not to your audience. Also, any signs of nerves you’re giving out feel an order of magnitude greater to you than they appear to anyone watching (the very first time I did public speaking, my knees shook. Afterward, the people assessing me told me I’d looked confident).
It’s normal to feel some nerves. In fact, when people don’t it can be a bad sign. I went through a phase of not feeling nervous, until I realised it was because I’d stopped giving a shit about the audiences I spoke to. I get nervous again nowadays; it’s not a bad thing, it means you care!
The goal during prep is to memorise the parts and structure of your talk, not necessarily the exact phrasing. I usually write talks long form at first just to make sure they work (you might find something different works for you though), then start committing chunks to memory.
It may also help you to write the middle and end before the introduction.
Practice it at least once with a timer. This is the only thing that will tell you how long it’s likely to be, and it’ll also give you indicators of what kind of notes work best for you.
If you live with people and are wary of practicing when they’re around, whisper or mumble it in a room with the door shut. Just thinking the words won’t be anywhere near your real pace.
If you have time, research more material than you will present (if you’re talking on something you know a lot about, this might not need research!). Though the audience won’t know, having extra stuff in the back of your mind will still help you, because you won’t have to scoot by any grey areas that make you self-conscious.
Lists of the main points you want to communicate can be good memory aids for you as a speaker. Use the smallest amount of notation you can get away with though, because if you’re looking at a full write up on stage it’ll be harder to speak instead of read out loud.
Lengthy notes are also easier to lose your place in. I’ve taken to only having images on screen with no or minimal text, and printing lists out on cards to use as notes – a stack of note cards in order is much easier to work with and find your way in than a couple of sides of A4 10pt text.
Use images wherever you can. Minimise text. Bullet pointed lists are the worst! They’re a terrible visual aid and not a particularly stimulating or useful thing to show the audience.
While of course there’s huge variation between people, humans generally seem to be pretty good at remembering images, sounds, etc. Most of us don’t seem to be innately good at remembering heavily encoded forms of information like text and numbers. Images speak much more potently for you, and people’s memories of your talk will hang on the things you show them.
Beginning the talk:
Memorise your first line verbatim and practice it. Take a few deep breaths right before you get up there. Pause for a second or two and look at the audience before you start speaking.
Doing these two things first will help you stay composed as you move into the rest of the talk.
Once you’re on stage you’ll probably speak a little faster than you normally do, so make sure to consciously pause between points. Brief silences may feel uncomfortable at first to you, but not to the audience.
Occasional pauses and deep breaths will work to keep you calm, and in that state, you can work towards being a much more conversational and relaxed speaker.
An old boss of mine once decided it would be a /cool lifehack/ to pack more information into a talk by speaking as fast as he humanly could. We were in the front row and had to write “SLOW DOWN” on our hands with sharpies to reign him in.
Unless you’re really highly media trained like a politician or TV presenter, it’s likely you’ll make some kind of mistake. Any mistake that makes you feel self conscious will continue to disrupt you if you let it, so cut it off. Cough, or look up and say sorry, or make a joke about it: whatever allows you to acknowledge it in some way, then draw a line under it. If it’s a small one, you can probably just ignore it and carry on.
Once you have done the thing that draws that line comfortably for you, you can just look at your notes and move on to the next thing. Everyone will very quickly forget you made a mistake at all, and they all have at least a little sympathy in knowing how difficult public speaking is.
This section definitely has some assumptions on neurotypicality baked into it, and given that it’s talking about large groups of people, necessarily slants toward those sort of averages. Depending on the makeup of your audience, and the makeup of you, this may apply differently.
You can make your audience less scary by addressing people within it individually. Say a sentence or two to one person, then look to another for the next sentence or two, and so on. Regard them as if you’re speaking to just them. Some people will disconcert you, so avoid those ones, and find the people who are friendly, smiling, look receptive, and generally set you more at ease.
Those who don’t look receptive don’t hate you. At rest, some people just have stonier faces than others. Don’t worry about them, and look at different people. Everyone, including you, also has different levels of comfort with eye contact.
By scanning the audience, you’re finding the people who are good for you in this situation. I find I tend settle into a rhythm, covering every area of the room by focussing on about half a dozen people.
Evenly distributing your attention around the room also helps to keep you present. By leapfrogging your gaze from person to person, side to side and front to back over the whole audience, it will draw the whole audience in by making them feel like thy have your attention, because they do. Even though you might not have made eye contact with everyone, just looking toward every part of the room during your talk tells the audience you’re conscious of them. Whereas, if you look to just one person or part of the room all the time, the other sections of your audience will feel ignored.
The worst talk I ever saw was someone at a business conference saying, in a monotone, with no apparent irony “You have to be enthusiastic about your project; people know if you’re not enthusiastic”.
Raise and lower the tone and speed of your voice where appropriate. This is something most of us do extremely unconsciously in most settings, but the nerves of public speaking can shut it down.
The more conversational in tone and confident you can be, the more the audience will feel a connection to you. If you’re talking about things you care about, it’ll be easier.
Nerves can make you quieter and flatten your affect though. It’s hard to work consciously against this without it sounding forced, so don’t try too hard – try instead to relax, and it will come naturally. Remember to breathe deep and pause.
Much like the section on audience contact above, this section will probably have some heavy neurotypical bias in it – my apologies for that, I will need to revise it.
I also kind of hate talking about this because if you dig into “body laguage” as a field you tend to find charaltans promoting a heady mix of pseudoscience and prejudice. The term “language” is a complete misnomer when it comes to affect, which then allows people to sell snake oil and misdirects people down microsopically analytical paths over tiny bits of behaviour that mean nothing out of context.
Getting too analytical about body language, particularly the “meaning” of specific gestures, tends to break it by making it conscious. And before you know it, you’re doing weird Tory power stances, or some psychopathic bizfuck is giving you inept advice on manipulating people into liking you.
While many millions of words have been written on it, notions of fixed, repeating affect seem to be extremely unreliable.
Fuck all of that, we’re going to figure out something much simpler and more humane. There’s no special set of gestures or secret trick – like everything else in this guide, it’s about getting into a relaxed enough state that it becomes visible to your audience, and you start to have a nicer time doing something difficult.
So, all that said, there are things that do or don’t look confident and welcoming, but they might be specific to you, your immediate context, the field you’re in, or your wider culture. So I’m not going to do a list of Bad and Good affect.
The starting point for thinking about all of this is: what are you like when you’re relaxed and conversational? What are your friends and colleagues like in that state; what tells you they are?
A few things seem to be generally applicable, but I might have a blind spot and be including things specific to the UK, my cultural upbringing, or the professional environments I’ve been in. Test them for yourself:
Standing up straight with your feet roughly shoulder width apart seems to be a thing most of us do when we’re feeling confident. On those legs: even if your audience can’t see them, your affect will influence the way you feel. That sort of posture/stance will open out your chest and make it much easier to speak out loud too.
Don’t lean on the podium if there is one, keep your hands free to gesture. Conversely, consciously faking big or elaborate gestures will stand out a mile, like highly rehearsed jokes without the performance skills to back them up.
A little conscious direction helps send your affect one way or another, but ultimately you’re looking to tweak then hand that back over to your unconscious autopilot, rather than have an extra layer of things to worry about.
Watching recordings of yourself might help too, as long as you can get over cringing at seeing and hearing yourself on tape. It’s never comfortable, but few things can boost your public speaking skills as fast.
As you practice, watch out for certain gestures or words that are habitual. We all have them, and even really experienced speakers will find new ones crop up occasionally. Common examples are things like a short pause and a soft “okay” on the end of each sentence, starting sentences with “So” (I still do this sometimes!), or starting points off with “And, I just wanted to say as well, that…”
Speak extemporaneously whenever possible – this way you’ll be more natural. There’s probably a whole book that could be written on this alone, but it starts with one very simple exercise: choose any object, probably one small enough you can pick it up and turn it over in your hands while speaking. Stand in front of a mirror with it, set a timer running, then talk about it for as long as you can without stumbling, laughing, or stopping.
It sounds silly, but is really good practice for getting into a mental state where you can improvise yet stay focussed. It helps you practice speaking clearly about a thing while simultaneously following every relation from it you can.
If you’d like to see a video of me doing a talk, Are You A Zany Enough Dude To Eradicate The Concept Of Leisure is the one I’m proudest of. So much sticks out to me that I could improve; I gave it at a point I’d become quite rusty at public speaking, so I’m nervous and hopping from one foot to the other throughout. But I managed to be enthusiastic anyway, managed to wrangle pausing into it, and people really enjoyed it.
I wish you luck in all your future public speaking. It’s a very deep subject, but learning to manage your nerves is the first and most solid step you can take.